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Review: Robert Kaplan’s What You’re Really Meant to Do – A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential

meant to doThis review first ran in the July 29th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

What You’re Really Meant To Do: A Road Map For Reaching Your Unique Potential

By Robert Steven Kaplan

Harvard Business Review press

$28

Everyone has bad days at work.

But your bad days are piling up into weeks and months.

You’ve lost that loving feeling for your job. What’s worse, you can’t remember or even imagine what you’d love to be doing instead.

While most folks would say you’ve been successful in your career, you know that you’ve fallen far short of your potential.

Yet you’re not about to hit the reset button at the halfway mark in your career.  You’ve got kids to put through school, a mortgage and debts that no honest man can pay.

You’re mad at painting yourself into a corner. And you feel guilty, knowing you make good money doing a job that’s not exactly backbreaking or rocket science.  You should be grateful and not bored beyond belief. Desperate job seekers would line up out the door and around the block for a shot at filling your seat.

Welcome to the wilderness that is the mid-career plateau. The good news is you’re not wandering alone and author Robert Steven Kaplan knows a way out.  He’s been a guide for his students at Harvard and for outwardly successful yet unfulfilled executives grappling with that big existential question of why we’re here and what we’re really meant to do.

The bad news?  It’s not an easy journey and will be especially hard if you’re not one for introspection. There are old habits to break and new skills to learn. You’ll be challenged and uncomfortable.  You’ll  need a thick skin to face some hard truths. And there aren’t any shortcuts, easy solutions or answers in the back of the book.

“Reaching your potential is not simply about dreaming or being idealistic,” says Kaplan. “It is a process that involve specific actions, exercises, discipline and hard work. It is challenging, rewarding and unending.”

The journey starts with a shift in perspective. “We are susceptible to pursuing paths that are based on someone else’s compass rather than our own,” says Kaplan, who warns that conventional wisdom and advice from family and friends is frequently dead wrong. “Worry less about being a success and worry more about reaching your potential.”

There are five legs to the journey:

  1. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. “In my experience, the reason people often fail to grow and improve isn’t necessarily that they lack the ability,” says Kaplan.” Instead, they lack awareness of their skills and skill deficiencies.”
  2. Find your passions. You won’t achieve your potential if you’re doing a job that leaves you cold.  “Lack of passion for your job limits your upward mobility, meaning that you’re more likely to be stuck in that job indefinitely.  Passion is critical for reading your potential.”
  3. Understand yourself and figure out the reason why you behave the way you do.“Every action you take gains meaning when it is viewed through the prism of who you are. The better you grasp who you are, the better you will be prepared to manage yourself and take actions that help you to reach your dreams.”
  4. Make the most of your opportunities.  What potential dream jobs would best match your skills and passions?  How well do your skills line up with the top three tasks that are critical to success in your current or future job? “I often see talented individuals who don’t fully understand the needs of their current job. This is one of the most common reasons highly skilled, passionate people fail to live up to their potential. They may be in the right job, but they haven’t done enough analysis to make the most of the opportunity.”
  5. Go from good to great to fulfill your potential. Figure out what you believe and then have the courage to act on your beliefs and values. “Leadership is the ability to figure out what you believe and then summon the courage to appropriately act on those beliefs,” says Kaplan.  “Great careers and organizations are built on people who are willing to act like leaders.
  6. Forge relationships. This isn’t a road trip you do solo. You need a handful of trusted colleagues and friends to give advice and feedback.  “It is critical to develop relationships with people who care enough about you to tell you the brutal truth – things you need to hear even though you don’t want to hear them.”

Kaplan has mapped out a different way of thinking about your career that rejects conventional wisdom, peer pressure and popular culture. It’s a journey that’ll take years of hard work and courage with little external reinforcement or approval along the way. Yet as Kaplan shows, it’s the only road worth taking.

“If you follow your own path, I don’t know how much money you will accumulate, how much stature you will achieve, or how many titles you will garner,” says Kaplan. “But if you’re true to your convictions and principles, I know you’re far more likely to feel like a big success. In the end, that feeling will make all the difference.”

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